Spoiler Alert: This review gives away some of the plot devices from Seasons 4 and 5!
Wentworth, the gut-wrenching Australian TV drama about life in a women’s prison, has always embraced queer themes. Just like its American sister show, Orange is the New Black, it kind of comes with the territory. Frankie, one of the show’s stars, is an out lesbian, and a lot of the plot revolves around her love life, trials, and tribulations. But Seasons 4 and 5 blow everything out of the water, with queer themes that transcend the normal, lesbian prison plotline.
Many people think that Wentworth is an OITNB knock-off, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s actually based on a classic Australian soap opera known in the U.S. as Prisoner Cell Block H. The show aired during the late 70s and early 80s, and was praised (and criticized) for being ahead of its time as far as portraying queer characters and relationships.
Season 4 opens up with Bea Smith, the show’s main character and top dog of the prison, trying to keep control over the other women. She meets Allie, a troubled woman with a history of drug abuse who comes from the militant women’s organization the Red Right Hand, a group that originally celebrated Bea as a killer of abusive men, and then turned against her. Bea can’t believe that Allie isn’t just trying to use her for something, and struggles with an attraction to a woman after a lifetime of considering herself straight.
She visits the prison therapist, Bridget, a lesbian in a relationship with ex-inmate Frankie, and learns that sexuality is a spectrum and being queer isn’t black and white. She ends up finding more happiness in this relationship than she ever thought possible, despite all the incredibly dark things happening around the couple. This only happens when she stops overthinking her sexuality and realizes that love is love, and that for most of her life she wasn’t really exploring her feelings.
Meanwhile, Frankie is trying to build a life with her love interest outside of prison. As the two seasons progress, her life becomes more complicated, and we again see Frankie trying to navigate life, love, and a system that seems determined to keep her down. Much of the drama in Season 5 revolves around Frankie landing back in prison and trying to maintain a relationship with Bridget. The two are only able to see each other when Bridget is at work, and the strain takes a major toll on their love.
Maxine, the trans woman in Wentworth, loves the fact that she is finally able to present as a biological woman. However, when she learns she has breast cancer, she has to decide between surviving after the loss of what she considers her identity, and living with cancer but keeping her breasts. The relationship between Maxine and troubled inmate Boomer still stays platonic, but is sweeter than ever, as the two work together to try and have a child using Maxine’s frozen sperm.
In true Wentworth fashion, nothing is too taboo for the screen, but the point is not to make a spectacle out of the queer identity or gawk at queerness. Instead, the overwhelming message behind the show remains that bad things will happen over and over to good people, especially the marginalized, women, people of color, queer and disabled folks. The challenge is to find love and strength in spite of the pain and suffering, and stand up in unity and solidarity. It’s definitely a message that can be applied here in the U.S. in 2018, and really any time adversity rears its ugly head.
There is way too much to unpack in the past two seasons of Wentworth, even just when it comes to queer themes. But rest assured, this show is queer, hard-hitting, and incredibly feminist. Ten out of 10 would recommend!